As you’ve probably been able to tell, Major League Baseball is in somewhat of a transitional period right now. To my eye, the game stayed pretty much the same from 2005-2012 (post steroid era, into to the new CBA, into the peak of the social media era), before things really started to change.
For just a few examples of what I mean, consider that plays can now be challenged, catchers can no longer block the plate without the ball, the neighborhood play no longer gets you an out, runners can’t take out defenders at second base, and really, the list goes on and on.
All of these changes, of course, were implemented – to varying degrees of success – in order to preserve the longevity of the game, while making it safer and more fun to watch. But one of the biggest, although slightly less visible, changes I (purposefully) left out were those made to affect the pace of play and overall length of game.
Unfortunately, lately, those pace of play initiatives arguably aren’t working all that well.
In an article at ESPN, Jayson Stark relays that the average time of a nine-inning ball game in 2016 is actually up nearly seven minutes compared to this time last season. More specifically, the average length of a game in 2016 is 3 hour, 0 minutes and 26 seconds, whereas last season at this time (after the pace-of-play rules were first implemented), average game time was 2 hours 53 minutes and 33 seconds.
Although the overall length of the game isn’t necessarily as important as the pace by which the game is played (more time isn’t necessarily bad, as long as that time is filled with actual game action), but that doesn’t appear to be the case. In fact, MLB Commisioner Rob Manfred isn’t too happy about the early returns this season, and he thinks the players themselves may actually be at fault.
And he may have a point.
According to Manfred, the pace-of-game rules were such a big deal last year, that they necessarily reeled in the focus and attention of the league. Players were more aware of the new rules and thus, followed them accordingly. However, this season, Manfred believes that “we’ve lost a little [player] focus” and he intends on getting that focus back.
Already, Manfred has had officials in the commissioner’s office reach out the MLB Players Association to make them aware of the league’s concerns over the recent trend. In addition, according to sources called upon by Stark, several individual MLB players have been identified as repeat offenders and have received personal phone calls reminding them to adhere to the rules.
But it might not be entirely the players’ fault.
According to Stark, the prolonged stretch of cold weather in the Midwest (No … it hasn’t been cold and rainy here, right?) is at least a contributing factor. Which, anecdotally does seem to make a bit of sense. When it’s cold out – and it has been – pitchers take a little longer, batters step out a little more to warm up their hands, and fielders move a little more slowly out to their spots. It’s just human nature and maybe something that will improve as the season goes on.
Another factor, according to MLB, is a big rise in pitches thrown per game. Indeed, the 289.25 pitchers per nine-inning game is the highest level its been at in seven years. Of course, with more pitches being thrown, it’s fairly easy to see how games can become so much longer.
Not among the suspects, Manfred has commented, is the replay system. As Stark puts it here at ESPN, “Manfred has absolved baseball’s replay system of blame, saying he looks at the 35% increase in replay reviews, compared with last year, as more of a pace-of-game issue than a time-of-game issue.”
And honestly, I think the replays might be helping the time of game issues, anyway. The longest any replay typically takes is about, what, 2-3 minutes? A manager running out to second base, arguing to show he has his players’ backs, then getting ejected and walking back to the dugout certainly takes much more time than that. Still, Manfred claims he’s open to adjusting the replay system after the season, if officials ultimately connect it to the ongoing problem.
[Brett: I don’t really subscribe to the distinction Manfred tries to draw there, because, while replays definitely do damage to the pace of the game (in service of a good cause), they also do lengthen games if they aren’t completed promptly (Michael’s good point about managerial/player arguments notwithstanding). I’m soap boxing a bit, since this isn’t my post and I’m living here in a bracketed insertion, but I just want to say that MLB needs a blanket rule: if the replay official cannot come to a conclusion on a review within, say, 90 seconds, then the call on the field stands. Period. The end. These three and four-minute reviews, although they are rare, are unacceptable. If you cannot tell whether the play was incorrectly called within a very short period of time, then spending another several minutes on it is highly unlikely to get you there. Just let the call stand. In fairness to Manfred, he, too, said he was unhappy about the super long reviews.]
In the end, Manfred believes that baseball needs to look at creative ways to improve both the time and pace of the game, and he promises to make it a major topic in the upcoming CBA negotiations this winter. For what it’s worth, he declined to comment on whether MLB would push for pitch clocks in the Major Leagues. “We’re going to put a package of issues on the table with the union, he said via Stark at ESPN.com, “Speculating about which ones I like and don’t like is counterproductive to that process at this point.”
Fair enough. Garnering agreement on whether or not the pace/time-of-game stuff is even an issue has been hard enough, we don’t need to force the debate on how to deal with it just yet. That will come naturally with time. Frankly, whether you agree with Manfred or not, you have to at least applaud his open-minded efforts to improve the game to the best of his ability.
Whether any of it works, remains to be seen.